The art of making wheels by hand, like that of bespoke frame building, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
The same sense of satisfaction from having something tailored for one’s own needs that drives passionate cyclists to custom frames is leading increasing numbers to purchase hand built hoops.
“It’s like being a tailor,” jokes Sam Humpheson, one of the trio behind London cycle café, Look Mum No Hands, and chief mechanic of the café’s workshop.
Humpheson has been engaged by Rapha to build wheels for several of the machines they have commissioned to launch their UK series of Continental rides at Bespoked Bristol, the UK’s handmade bike show.
A competitive cyclist with years of experience in some of the capital’s most respected bike shops, Humpheson readily admits that wheel building remains “a treat,” one that requires dedication, experience and patience to raise a wheel beyond the mere ‘adequate’.
He begins the process by discussing, preferably face-to-face, the needs of the wheels’ erstwhile owner. Rider weight, riding style, and purpose for the purchase are all constituent factors of the finished product. Are they racing or commuting? If racing, are they sprinter or climber? Are they ‘mashers’ who ‘stamp around in big gears’ or ‘spinners’ who ‘float like hummingbirds’ at high cadence?
While heavier riders are not always the hardest on their equipment (Humpheson cites lighter riders who “go through chains and cassettes at a phenomenal rate”) a 90kg rider will typically produce more watts than one weighing 60kg, and may therefore require a more robust wheel. “At a basic level, it will affect how many spokes you can get away with and the profile of the rim: a shallow rim that will be light or a deep section rim that might carry a bit more weight but will bring stiffness,” says Humpheson.
He compares lacing a wheel to knitting and describes a complicated process requiring ‘three hands’ that becomes simpler with repetition. Lacing a wheel has long been a task he can complete while holding a conversation.
Assembly is followed by initial tensioning, another process he says is completed by all wheel builders in the same fashion. The final tensioning, however, is the locus of the wheel builder’s art, the difference between a good wheel and one that is merely ‘adequate’ and a process he describes as a “complicated balancing act”.
“You’re adjusting the wheel for three different aspects, and when you make an adjustment for one, you compromise the other. You’re trying firstly to make it concentric, you’re making sure it’s laterally true so it runs clear between the braking surface, and you’re making sure it’s dished correctly so it’s square in the frame,” he says.
To be a good wheel builder requires a combination of skill and professional pride that prohibits any sense of satisfaction until the wheel is as good as it can be. “The difference between building a wheel as quickly as possible and building a wheel I’m happy with is about half an hour. I hate building wheels in a hurry.”
A well made, hand built wheel should offer several performance advantages, says Humpheson.
“It will be perfectly balanced. You won’t get any negative feedback from the road. In the rear wheel particularly you will feel the difference. It won’t flex. Another difference with a wheel beautifully built by hand is longevity. You’re building something that is structurally sound.”
While discussing a rider’s needs and building a custom wheelset provides the greatest satisfaction, Humpheson repairs the hoops of big manufacturers like Bontrager, Fulcrum and Mavic when it is more economical for the customer to do so.
He also hand builds wheels from popular spoke, rim, and hub combinations to sell ‘off the peg’. Thirty-two hole Mavic Open Pro rims laced to Shimano Ultegra hubs deliver a wheelset that will “cope with pretty much anything,” he says.
The requirement to build wheels ‘day in, day out’ is not one Humpheson has ever been forced to encounter, and, as a result, he still relishes the task. “I wouldn’t like to build more than two sets a day.
“To me, it’s a treat. It’s still something I look forward to. I still find it a satisfying process to come out with something perfect.”